Creating a supportive and more inclusive society

Civil society is defined as a community of citizens linked by common interests and collective activity. In February, the government launched a consultation to inform a new strategy setting out how it can work with and for civil society to tackle challenges and unlock opportunities to build a stronger society now and in the future.

We’re big advocates of civil society at Good Things Foundation, and together with the Online Centres Network, we have a keen interest in supporting people who are socially excluded to live fulfilling lives and to help strengthen the communities they live in. This means we’re keen to ensure that the new Civil Society strategy represents, and takes into account, the views of those who are ensuring its success.  

The inequality gap in the UK is huge, with 14 million people living in poverty, 9 million people lonely or isolated and 11.3 million lacking basic digital skills. Everyday staff and volunteers from Online Centres work to make sure those most in need can play a full role in society. With funding becoming more and more scarce, consistent support – from government and others – is vital.

Critically, any Civil Society Strategy needs to marry the huge benefits digital can provide, with the importance of community, and of face-to-face support, in building a strong civil society that benefits us all.

Our recommendations

We worked with Online Centres to develop a response to the Government’s consultation, which you can see in full here, along with a number of recommendations, which I’ve shared below.

DCMS, Good Things Foundation, charities and the tech sector should work in partnership to grow the understanding of the role of digital in driving impact across all social outcomes. This is not just about digital skills but also leadership. We should aim to deliver culture change, where digital is no longer a bolt-on but is understood and used as a core element of any public benefit delivery.

DCMS, central Government, local Government and businesses need to connect the power and the money with the voices that need to be heard, involving excluded people and hyperlocal organisations to co-design public services and public benefit solutions.

DCMS needs to understand that policy often undermines the efforts of civil society. Central Government rarely prioritises civil society when considering the key players who will help policy succeed. The Civil Society Strategy should commit DCMS to not just convening other Government Departments to ensure that core public benefit programmes succeed but also intervening where it is clear policies from other Departments are ignoring or negating the needs of civil society’s efforts to deliver public benefit.

DCMS and all partners should develop a Partnership Charter that all organisations working in partnership can commit to. The government could further develop the face-to-face and digital systems and structures which enable hyperlocal civil society organisations to connect and tackle problems together, through network organisations like Good Things Foundation and others.

The government, large funders, businesses and local authorities should work together to ensure we have a funding environment that can support a strong civil society. Funding isn’t always reaching the organisations, and the people, who really need it. Through a cross-sector working group, the government should work with large funders to ensure that funding actually reaches those who can use it for greatest benefit.

Civil society is a term that probably few people have heard of – after all it is a term popular with government ministers, academics, aid workers and the likes – but it’s so vital in ensuring we thrive as a nation. I really hope Government will consider our response in helping to shape a stronger civil society, working with partners like those in the Online Centres Network, to create a better world for everyone.

Calling England’s libraries, the time to plan for the future is now

Back in October 2015 we launched a six-month project called the Library Digital Inclusion Fund in consultation with the Leadership for Libraries Taskforce, funding 16 library services in our network of community partners to run innovative schemes with the aim of increasing their digital inclusion activities, thus increasing their potential and cementing their place in society. Yesterday we launched our research findings from that project, proving that libraries’ community roots and partnerships can address social and digital exclusion – but that more needs to be done.

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The library sector seems to be suffering an existential crisis. They are facing tough times. This new project has established that libraries can, with help, reach those most in need (the 12.6 million people in the UK lacking basic digital skills), helping to connect them to digital information and skills. They work from the ground up and often have the resources – free-to-use WiFi and technology, such as laptops and tablets – that learners need. This makes them an integral part of communities everywhere and to lose any one of them is a great loss. Libraries need to live up to their enormous potential before time runs out. But what can we do?

England’s libraries need a solid digital inclusion strategy

The library sector needs to look ahead and develop a plan for the future. A key element is securing investment to make sure they have the most up-to-date equipment and services. During this year’s Be Online campaign I visited Leeds Libraries and went with them on an outreach session to visit a lovely lady called Molly. It was Molly’s first day with the project – she was learning about the internet through the Libraries@Home service and borrowing an iPad with a SIM card (which was developed as part of the Libraries Digital Inclusion Fund project). Without the proper investment, services such as this will no longer exist, and those already suffering social exclusion will be worse off as a result.

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We also need to think about how libraries can plug into other services to help communities and individuals to thrive. For example libraries could work together with local social housing providers to bring their outreach services to tenants who are otherwise unable to access technology and the online world. This kind of partnership would benefit libraries in so many ways, not least by helping them to prove their worth to local authorities, funders and the wider world, in terms of social impact and economic, digital-by-default support.

Now here comes the stats bit (you knew it would be in here somewhere). We’ve done a few calculations to work out the potential savings to local and national government in the areas where the library services participating in the project are based. Based on what we know about the way our learners shift from using face-to-face and telephone services to online channels, we would expect potential cost savings of more than £800,000 per year just through the project beneficiaries alone. If similar low-scale activities to those which took place throughout the project were implemented across all 151 library services in England, a potential £7.5 million per year of cost savings could be achieved.

Utilising technology and making plans to advance their digital work shows that libraries aren’t just about books any more – it shows that they’re moving with the times and planning for the future. I believe that libraries are not out-dated and not a thing of the past; I believe that libraries are an essential part of communities all across the UK and that they all have the potential to mould themselves and adapt to the developing technological world.

Our project supported more than 1,600 people to improve their digital skills at over 200 branch libraries. Target audiences included elderly people, families in poverty, disabled people and the long term unemployed, with activities ranging from job search skills to keeping in touch; connecting with essential government services to managing long term health conditions; understanding benefits to following hobbies.

Libraries may be an old concept but they are by no means obsolete. At Tinder Foundation we believe that we can help libraries with investment and strategy and this research very much shows that. The time to start planning for the future is now – let’s do it together.

Read our Library Digital Inclusion Fund Action Research Project evaluation report here.